Latte enjoys the Juliet Marillier books, and, having read one of them (though I’m going to increase that number soon, as I’ve promised Latte), I can certainly see her love for them. But they don’t feature in my childhood in the same way as they do in hers; instead, I have another series of books I love.
When I was in grade 5 here a teacher – I don’t remember which one – took three or four of us to the library and had a chat with us about books. And he said that there was one group of books in particular that we might enjoy.
“Redwall?” I thought. “What an odd name!”
I also wondered how to pronounce the author’s name. “Brian Jacques. Brian I can manage, but Jacques?”
The teacher put some books out on a seat and we each picked one up. I got the one with a fox on the cover, twirling a cape with moons and stars on it. I thought it was cool, but I liked the look of the one with the evil-looking rat on it, and the mad horse too. My favourite was the one with the big badger on the cover, though, carrying what looked like an enormous spear. It looked proud and strong, and ready to do battle, so, being 10 and a boy, I knew that one would be the best.
Redwall, if you’re not familiar with it, concerns a land populated entirely by… well… rodents. As such it appears at first – and probably is – a children’s series. In this world, there is a place called Redwall Abbey, which is maybe best described as a safe haven for the gentle folk. Most books in the series revolve around this place, and with good reason – it describes a home where everyone lives together, much like a very big family. Everyone is happy there, most of the time. There is always a counterpoint, though.
In contrast to the mice, badgers, otters, moles, squirrels, hares, and other animals living in Redwall and generally populating the land, there exist the vermin: rats, weasels and stoats, foxes, and so on. They almost always represent a consistent and actively malevolent threat to the “good guys”, traditionally Redwall itself, and in this sense the books are quite violent and rather graphic in context of children’s literature.
A short time later, I borrowed out the first book in the series, simply called Redwall. It was the first one Brian Jacques wrote, though not the first in the chronology of the universe it describes, and in terms of style, compared with the other, newer books, it has a charming archaism about it, that I still enjoy – indeed I think it’s the best of the series, partly because of this. There was a sense of myth about it, and I suspect he enjoyed working with the novelty of having this universe. It was really a very dark book, and portrayed Redwall Abbey as the only place where health and love could really thrive, and it was surrounded by dark forest and a world that was ultimately bigger. There was offhand reference to men and large animals, like horses and cattle, and notes of a distant fear pervading the land. I was very much instantly attracted to this strange book, and soon after finishing the first book, I borrowed the second one, the immediate sequel, called Mattimeo, which followed on from the events of the first book. Subsequent stories that Brian Jacques wrote fleshed out more of the legends of the place; it forgot that there was a world with big things in it, and told only of the stories of mice and rats. In some sense it tamed somewhat, and in doing so became less tragic. I’m not sure that it’s a loss, despite how I enjoyed the first book the most, because there was always the element common to Tales of Redwall: the Abbey was place you could go to find rest and happiness, and be sure that you’d be safe. It was treated with such confidence (I have no other word) that I consistently wanted to believe it existed.
This is what I liked about the books. They were so good to escape to, because they described a world I wanted to be a part of. One where I could do what I could to help. Whether it was a soldier in the army, a cook, helping those moles with their incredibly delicious-sounding food in the kitchen, or to play with the little ones.
I have since become more fond of things where the good guys aren’t unequivocally good and the bad guys aren’t unequivocally bad, since it makes character development worth more, and allows for more complex characters, without them being anti-heroes. For example, I got tired very quickly of the bad guy from Titanic, because he was never shown doing anything other than something clearly evil, and it detracted from the story. Redwall doesn’t suffer this problem as much because it’s presented as if morality is genetic, though the few exceptions that exist do hint to other possible reasons. As far as character development goes, this approach allows the author to address some interesting questions; what happens if you raise a rat – that is, vermin – in a place like Redwall Abbey from birth? Do all vermin react the same when presented with a place like Redwall? Is their first instinct always to pillage the place?
For the most part, however, the stories are very much plot-driven. Given the fantastic nature of the world that’s described, this necessarily includes a detailed geography for most stories, since plots tend to involve journeys. One thing that always confused me when I was younger was that just about every map, in every story, was different. Redwall lay on a field on the edge of a forest, yes, with a road running past it, yes, and the sea was to the west, and Salamandastron – a volcano held by badgers and hares – lay on the coast; but these were often the only elements consistent between stories’ geography, and their relative positions weren’t always the same. As a child and teenager I demanded consistency, and always puzzled over these things. I’ve come to think of it as a good thing now, though; I don’t know if it was intentional, but it helps reinforce a certain mythic-ness to the universe that I liked in the first place. Is the land unchanging? Or is it only as consistent as the adventure in each story, adapting to the needs in each one? Do the inhabitants of the world perceive it as fluctuating, but are so utterly used to the idea that it never bears mentioning? Is this a fantastic world that is so strange that those who live in it consider its strangeness so taken for granted that they should never think of it?
Many things I love about these stories. I would recommend you pick them up, if you haven’t already, and read them again, and see if you can’t look deeper. I don’t believe in the reader inferring meaning in a story where the author intended none, but maybe there are good exercises to be had in this world. I’m going to pick these books up again.